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During the eight years I taught NAMI’s Family to Family course, the session that most powerfully impacted participants was the one near the program’s end where they got to meet a person who relies on mental health services.

They’d look around the room expectantly and I’d announce: “I know you’re expecting a special guest tonight, someone who lives with mental illness as your relatives do.” I’d pause a few beats, then say: “Hi. My name is Carlene and I live with bipolar disorder.”

Eyes would widen. Jaws would drop. Sometimes I could hear a sharp intake of breath. No one expected their teacher to have a diagnosis. No one imagined that an ordinary-shaped life could also include bipolar disorder.

Over the two previous months of classes, the students had come to see me as trustworthy, reliable, capable. They knew my husband and I provided support to his brother, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia. They were aware I held a professional job in a well-regarded national firm.

And neither the content of the course, nor their challenging experiences with their own relatives, had led them to imagine that any of that was possible for a person with a mental health diagnosis.

Until they met me.

‘Mental Illness’ is the New Normal

The reality is that I’m much more the norm than most people imagine. Let’s do a little math:

  • If mental illnesses affect nearly 1 in 5 adults in a given year, but only 3.7% of the adult population is unemployed, then a lot of people with mental health conditions have jobs. People with mental illnesses are essential to our workforce. Most people with mental health conditions lead productive, valuable lives.
  • If only about 17% of Americans enjoy “optimal mental health,” then more than 8 in 10 of us are getting on in spite of having received a less than perfect bill of emotional health. Most of those 83% have never even received a diagnosis. Most people with less than “optimal mental health” are not teetering on the edge of a breakdown.
  • If 83% of the population falls short of “optimal mental health,” then “optimal” mental health is an outlier, not a condition toward which people can reasonably aspire.

But that’s just math. We’re people, not just numbers. We’re kind-hearted. We want the best for everyone. We see people who are not happy and ask: What’s to be done?

If 83% of the population falls short of ‘optimal mental health,’ then ‘optimal’ mental health is an outlier, not an aspiration.

The most common prescription today is mental health treatment. More counselors. More support groups. More psychiatrists. More medicines.

What I Learned From 4 Decades of Mental Health Treatment

I would make a different recommendation. I come to my perspective not as a person with professional expertise but as a person who has been in some form of mental health treatment almost constantly since age 17. What I’ve learned from more than four decades in mental health care is that mental health treatments are less clearly helpful than many like to believe:

  • Many psychiatric medications have damaging physical health effects on some number of patients. For me, one of the most obvious was a trip to the emergency with a small kidney stone — a “side” effect of two medicines I was taking at the time. No one on either side of the family has any history of kidney issues.
  • Many psychiatric medications do damage to the patient’s competence. If we had practiced “early intervention” when I was a teen, I’d have been put on lithium, which was then the front-line treatment for bipolar disorder. A doctor did eventually try lithium on me when I was in my 40s. On lithium, I was so forgetful that I couldn’t remember my boss’s instructions for as long as it took to walk from his desk to his office door. If I’d started lithium as a teen, I’d never have been my high school’s valedictorian, a National Merit Scholar, a US Presidential Scholar.

‘Side’ effects of psych meds can cost a career — sometimes a life

Of course, new medications are regularly developed. They help some people and harm others. Over the decades of my treatment, psychiatrists have tested my response to 22 different medicines. Here are a few other “side” effects I had to weigh against hoped for mental health benefits:

  • My hair fell out as if I were on chemotherapy.
  • I gained weight faster than I could replace my business wardrobe..
  • My fingers ceased to be adequately under my control. I had to give up piano lessons and lost more than 30 words per minute of keyboard speed.
  • I became so disoriented that I got lost four times in one day on the four-mile trip home from my usual shopping center.
  • The “word finding” part of my brain became compromised. I started using Google Search to retrieve words I needed for writing. (“What is the cotton fabric with an all-over pattern of flowers?” Chintz, Google reminds me.)
  • I developed my first and only full-blown mania, physically attacking my husband then hiding out for three days under an assumed name in a hotel.
  • I was hospitalized with five active and viable suicide plans that I could not shut out of my brain. (At the time, I had just been started on one of those “black box” meds that “may” create suicidal ideation.) Two days after I returned to the office, my boss began suggesting other jobs I could apply for in other companies … four months later I was let go.
  • I spent weeks convinced that God is evil and the Bible a pack of lies — the kind of lies a dysfunctional Daddy would tell to make himself look good.

The medicines that were supposed to improve my mental health damaged my appearance, my daily living competence, my work, my marriage and my faith. These are not “side” effects to be balanced against better emotional equilibrium. These are the kinds of additional life stresses that send people who are already teetering over the edge

The medicines that were supposed to improve my mental health damaged my appearance, my competence, my work, my marriage and my faith.

Global Research: More ‘Mental Health Care’ Means More Suicides

I don’t find it surprising that three international studies, covering as many as 191 nations, find that the more mental health services a nation provides, the more people die by suicide. Our track record in the US supports this. Since the 1990s, we have tripled the percent of people using mental health services, increased to 1 in 6 the share taking psychiatric medicines, and watched our US suicide rate rise by a third. All this has happened in the US at the same time that the global suicide rate has dropped by a third.

It’s time to look to the rest of the world for a better set of solutions. People with mental health diagnoses — people like me — can and do live useful and productive lives. Let’s learn from other nations how they are helping people like me to avoid death by suicide.

God Calls Us to Each Other, Not Just to ‘Treatment’

Church, it’s time for us to look to God for wisdom, which God promises to everyone who asks (James 1:5). It’s time to love the good that God has given to each of us instead of cultivating envy for the blessedly “optimal” mental health of the 17 percent. It’s only “together with all the saints” that we are able to comprehend “how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge …” (Eph. 3: 17-19).

It’s time to love the good that God has given to each of us instead of cultivating envy for the blessedly “optimal” mental health of the 17 percent.

Only when we attempt to embrace the immensity of God’s love for all the people God loves — God’s sad saints and God’s exuberant saints and God’s despairing and desperate saints, God’s psychotic and visionary saints, God’s servant saints, God’s needy saints, and all the others God has called to God’s family — only then do we begin to understand how great is our God’s love for each of us as individuals and for all of us together as the people of God.

Learning to see and share a love that immense is the work of a lifetime. It is the greatest purpose a life can have. There is no greater reason for me to “choose life” for myself, each and every day.

Although the Lord gives you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, your teachers will be hidden no more; with your own eyes you will see them. Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.’

Isaiah 30: 20-21

And so I continue to take my medicines — although in ever smaller amounts. I continue to seek God, to work in God’s world, and to serve among God’s people. Because as a person with a bipolar diagnosis — indeed, as any follower of Jesus — it’s only together with all God’s saints that I can find the place of meaning, purpose, and belonging that God has prepared for me.